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Llew ‘Who’ O’Brien and the National Party turducken

Feb 14, 2020 • 14m 53s

Why the chaos that installed Llew O’Brien as deputy speaker is really about Queensland state politics - and how it’s set the clock on nine months of dysfunction from the Coalition.

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Llew ‘Who’ O’Brien and the National Party turducken

163 • Feb 14, 2020

Llew ‘Who’ O’Brien and the National Party turducken

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

This week the Nationals tore themselves apart over who would be the Deputy Speaker…in an episode that's been called Barnaby’s revenge.

Today, The Saturday Paper Columnist Paul Bonjourno, on why the chaos in parliament is really about the Queensland state election.

So, Paul, who was the most embarrassed by what happened in parliament this week?

PAUL:

Well, Ruby, it could be a bit of a competition between Scott Morrison, the prime minister or the Nationals leader Michael McCormick, the deputy prime minister.

Archival Tape -- Michael McCormick:

“We’ve had a few untidy days—”

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“A few?”

Archival Tape -- Michael McCormick:

“Well… the last week hasn’t … hasn’t been ahh… hasn’t been pretty.”

PAUL:

On Monday, five and possibly six national MPs joined an ambush to deny the government its choice of deputy speaker in a secret ballot.

Archival Tape -- Speaker:

“The result of the ballot is Mr Drum 67, Mr O’Brien 75, so I hereby declare Mr O’Brien elected…”

PAUL:

They installed Labor's pick, Lou O’Brien, over the government's choice, which was Damian Drum.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Nationals MPs have delivered an embarrassing Parliamentary defeat to the government after joining with Labor to install Llew O’Brien as Deputy Speaker.”

PAUL:

Now, Drum was on a promise from Michael McCormack, the Nationals embattled leader, that he would get the lucrative deputy speaker's job if he stuck with him in the leadership showdown.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“The little-known Queensland MP defected from the Nationals over a stoush with party leader Michael McCormack”

PAUL:

So this was an act of brazen defiance. Clearly, the issues that led to Barnaby Joyce's failed leadership attempt have not been healed in the National Party room.

RUBY:

Ok, Paul, remind me who Llew O’Brien is again...

PAUL:

Yes. They were calling him who O’brien around parliament.

Archival Tape -- O’brien:

“I’m privileged to be here. As a country policeman, I find it incredible that I can walk into this place and take part in this.”

PAUL:

O’Brien, who is a former Queensland copper... he was a highway patrolman. He's a keen motor biker and occasionally listen to this. He hops on his bike and drives it down to Canberra. Fourteen hundred kilometres away, but he takes the inland route and stops off in Armidale to stay with his good mate, Barnaby Joyce.

Lou O’Brien was sitting in the National Party room in Canberra until Monday when he quit that party room.

He holds the seat of Wide Bay in Queensland, a safe seat formerly held by Warren Truss, deputy prime minister and National. But he says he won it as an LNP candidate.

It’s important to remember, the Liberal National Party is the amalgamated party of the Libs and the Nats in Queensland. But in fact, it's a Nationals takeover of the Libs in that state.

So it was O’Brien who moved a spill motion in support of Barnaby Joyce's leadership coup last week.

O’Brien is a fierce critic of the Nationals leader, Michael McCormack. This week, O’Brien assured parliament he was still a member of the coalition, just not a member of the National Party. He gave a written assurance of continued support to the prime minister and then attended the government party room.

And sources tell me no one welcomed him or drew attention to his new status as a free radical.

RUBY:

Right. Okay. And so Llew O’brien is now the deputy speaker. And that's despite the coalition actually not wanting him. So. So who voted for who when it all came down to it?

PAUL:

Yes, that's got everybody guessing. Now the cross-bench is keeping schtum on who they voted for or, you know, which way and why.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Who did you vote for?“

Archival Tape -- Party Member:

“Ahh I can’t say that—”

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Yes you can.”

Archival Tape -- Party Member:

“... Well I suppose I could but look…”

PAUL:

So we do know that some Nationals had to vote for O’Brien, otherwise he couldn't have got up, and that's presuming the six cross-benchers voted for him and there's no certainty of that. So the best guess was it could be five, might even have been six of them.

Now, Queensland Nationals Michelle Landry. She has a seat based on Rockhampton. She said she thought the whole thing may have been revenge for the fact Barnaby Joyce didn't get the leadership. So here we had, if you like, a confirmation of the ructions in the party.

Archival Tape -- Michelle Landry:

“Look, I think it might have been a bit of revenge happening there because Barnaby didn’t get the leadership, which is unfortunate I mean...y’know, I just want to get on with the job that I’m down here for…”

PAUL:

Joyce himself, in fact, wanted another Queensland national, Ken O'Dowd to be deputy. O'Dowd declined because he said he didn't want to make more trouble for the National Party, while at the same time saying that he declined the offer from Barnaby Joyce to be nominated, he also claimed he voted for O’Brien because O'Brien's a Queenslander. More than that, O'Dowd went on to say that he wanted to send a shot across the boughs of Michael McCormick, put him on notice that he had to lift his game.

RUBY:

Okay. So the coalition wanted Damian Drum to be the deputy speaker. But Barnaby Joyce wanted Ken O'Dowd. Then Ken O'Dowd decided that he wouldn't stand, and then he voted for Llew O’Brien, who ultimately won. Have I got it?

PAUL:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's really hard to get your head around because it's so bizarre. I reckon it's even black comedy. It certainly defies logic.

And all of this was fuelled by the belief, particularly amongst Queenslanders, but not only Queenslanders, that McCormick is weak and lacks the cut through they need.

His leadership of the Nationals is now suffering the drip treatment of leaks and undermining, which is a sure sign that they're going to have another go at him.

RUBY:

Okay sure. But on top of all of this just coming back here, Lou O’Brien was actually Labor's candidate?

PAUL:

Yeah, that's right. O’Brien Delighted Labor went out of the blue. He accepted Tony Burke, the manager of opposition business’ nomination.

Archival Tape -- Tony Burke:

“I nominate Mr Llew O’Brien, the member for Wide Bay.”

PAUL:

Now, Burke got to his feet and nominated O’Brien, even though he wasn't in the chamber at the time, they had to go and get him and and drag him back in.

Archival Tape -- Tony Burke:

“While this position would normally go to a member of the same party as forms the cabinet, given the change in numbers today, I think it’s appropriate that this position go to somebody who has taken a higher position of independence.”

And the speaker asked him, will you accept the nomination now? I'm told that Tony Burke and the Labor people, their hearts were in their mouths because they weren't sure if you'd say yes or no.

Archival Tape -- Llew O’Brien:

“Mr Speaker, I wish to accept the nomination for deputy speaker.”

PAUL:

When he said yes, they knew their punt had paid off because they were aware of the ructions in the Nationals over the deputy speaker's job.

Now, Anthony Albanese, he defended the tactic on RN breakfast.

Archival Tape --Barnaby Joyce:

“It is not Labor’s job, or my responsibility, to promote unity in the Coalition”

PAUL:

He said it wasn't Labor's job to hide the cracks in the government, and of course, what they have succeeded in doing was dramatising them for everyone to see.

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RUBY:

Paul, we're talking about division in the coalition, which has now allowed Labor to hijack the election of the deputy speaker. How is that division playing out within the party room though?

PAUL:

So before Tuesday's joint party room meeting, that is when the Libs and the Nats get together, the word went out from Morrison and Frydenberg that the Liberals weren't to engage the Nationals in debate in the party room to avoid the clashes this week that we saw last week over coal and climate change are moderate liberals and not only moderate liberals, by the way, were furious with this directive.

The Australian newspaper quoted one saying it was like having to appease a child who has a tantrum. And of course, it only makes the tantrums worse.

He's quoted as saying we've had to appease the Nationals for the past four years. So more evidence of unhappy campers. You know, other liberals are fed up with nationals like Joyce and George Christensen and even Llew O’Brien threatening to cross the floor and blow up the government if they don't get their own way.

One told me there wouldn't have been a miracle election win in May without other Coalition MPs like himself holding their seats. And in Tasmania, winning two from Labor. So this holding the entire government to ransom for the sake of four coal seats in Queensland is infuriating so many in the joint party room.

RUBY:

OK, so this more pro-coal wing of the coalition, what are they actually saying?

PAUL:

Well, the Queensland senator, Matt Canavan, who quit as resources minister to back the Joyce bid again in the party room, spoke in favour of coal and rejected Morrison's vision of using gas as the best fossil fuel in the transition to renewables.

He also went on the ABC mid-week and used every second of an 18 minute interview to say he would continue to speak out on energy policy.

Archival Tape -- Matt Canavan:

“Well I'm happy to be the minister… well back then, I should speak in the past tense, I was happy to be the minister for gas, the minister for coal, the minister for Hydrogen, etc, etc. So I supported all fuel types…”

PAUL:

He would continue to defend coal jobs and dismiss the futility of Australia doing anything to reduce emissions while India and China are not.

Archival Tape -- Matt Canavan:

“I suppose the only thing I’d say is I make no apology for standing up for policy issues and ideas... “

PAUL:

Now Canavan, who's based in Rockhampton, is credited with orchestrating the successful pro-coal campaign in the run up to the May election.

He equated the Adani mine with thousands of jobs and is intent on repeating the same trick with the proposed Collinsville coal fired power station in the run up to the Queensland state election.

Archival Tape -- Matt Canavan:

“I've welcomed this week the government's policy to support the development of a business case for the Collinsville coal fired power station. It's absolutely essentially required, in my view.”

PAUL:

This alone is a timetable for nine months of pain for Morrison and the metropolitan Liberals, who have read the mood in their electorate for more action on climate change and a phasing out of fossil fuel use.

RUBY:

And so all of this, or at least a large part of it, is about a Queensland state election.

PAUL:

Yeah, I think there's absolutely no doubt about that. Historically, the Nationals in Queensland are very state focused and the LNP is very much of the same mould.

There was a YouGov poll in the Courier Mail last Saturday and it recorded a 15 per cent vote for Hanson. Now that that spells big trouble for LNP candidates

They've they're quite worried that that YouGov poll showed Labor was regaining ground that it had lost earlier in the year.

RUBY:

Okay. So we could have at least nine more months of this. Canavan is basically saying as much. So what does Scott Morrison plan to do about that?

PAUL:

Well, that's a very good question. Ruby, I'm glad you asked it. What can he do? We saw the bitter internecine fighting on Tuesday. It overshadowed the Indonesian president's visit and the free trade deal with it. Morrison's problem is, though, that his own credibility and authority within the party room has been weakened by his failure of leadership during the bushfire crisis. And it's difficult to see the Nationals fractiousness ending the side of Barnaby Joyce returning as leader. And the irony here is if Barnaby Joyce does return as leader, Scott Morrison's problems will only get worse.

RUBY:

Paul, thanks so much for talking to me today.

PAUL:

Thanks, Ruby.

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RUBY:

Also in the news today, there’s been a sharp increase in cases of Coronavirus in the Chinese province of Hubei, with hundreds of people dying in the last few days. The secretary of the Communist Party in the province has also been replaced… which is the first major removal of a party official since the outbreak began.

And in the US - Bernie Sanders has claimed victory in the New Hampshire primary with a narrow win over Pete boot-edge-edge. Former Vice President Joe Biden finished in fifth place.. raising questions about his viability as a candidate.

7am is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing on your favourite podcast app.

I’m Ruby Jones, thanks for listening, and see you next week.

The upcoming Queensland state election is shaping Canberra politics and tearing the Nationals apart. Paul Bongiorno on what the elevation of Llew O’Brien to deputy speaker really means - and how it’s set the clock on nine months of dysfunction for the Coalition.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno.

Background reading:

Coal-blooded attacks on Coalition unity in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Ruby Jones. The show is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Elle Marsh and Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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163: Llew ‘Who’ O’Brien and the National Party turducken